Thanksgiving – St. Paul’s
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, what is the most important thing to remember? As Paul said to the Thessalonians, Thou shalt remember to save room for the pumpkin pie sent by the Corinthians. No, not really. However, there are some important things to recall as we gather for our yearly Thanksgiving meal.
We could take a look at the mythology of Thanksgiving; the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. Do you remember the stories told in school plays and storybooks? We might recall the annual football games held on Thanksgiving featuring the indefatigable Detroit Lions. Or, it could be gathering your family and friends over a meal and waiting on Uncle Frank to have one too many beers and begin talking about building the wall. But better than all of those, Thanksgiving could be about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving would have nothing to do with the Pilgrims, Squanto, Football, overcooked Turkey, Uncle Frank’s politics, or anything else. What if Thanksgiving was about Thanksgiving?
In the Bible, Thanksgiving meant Thanksgiving. There were no turkeys, football, Squanto, or Pilgrims. I’m not sure Deviled Eggs were kosher. Can anything called “deviled” be holy? In Jesus’ day, people were thankful without all of the extra baggage we’ve attached to the idea of being thankful. Their idea of gratitude derived from an appreciation of being alive. Jesus’ followers were able to find gratitude for their daily bread despite their brother having leprosy or their sister’s calling to be a prostitute by the local well. Gratitude isn’t something picked up from comparing yourself to the misery of others; it is our response to God’s presence in the universe.
Thanksgiving is a time when we traditionally reflect on our blessings. Blessings. It’s a word we trip off our tongues easily enough: Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts…We bless ourselves with the sign of the cross and we say God bless youwhen someone sneezes. This Thanksgiving I want to turn your minds and hearts to see blessing differently. I want you to see blessing not as words that we say or something that one person gives to another. I want you to see that blessing is notsomething you do, but as something you are to one another. It is being together in kindness.
Where did I learn this from? Here’s the story when I lived in Austin.
Jerry had chosen his spot strategically. Every car entering the HEB’s store parking lot passed within a couple of feet of him. As drivers turned in, they would spot him and his hand-made sign. Etched on a bit of cardboard large block letters announced, NEED HELP.Several shoppers ahead of me slid down their passenger-side windows and passed over some change or a few bills to him. I pulled into the nearest parking spot and strolled over to where he stood. I’m Mike,I said as I stuck out my hand. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, I’m Jerry.We talked for a while, interrupted from time to time by passersby offering money. Jerry told me that he and his wife live on the banks of the Colorado River. Gathering discarded bits and pieces from trash piles and old construction sites, they had built a structure they called home.
We found a tarp for the roof. It keeps the rain out. It’s real nice.I asked, Do you have any tools for the work? He said, No. But our neighbors helped us put it up. Everybody helps each other like that.By neighbors, Jerry meant the other residents of a make-shift village of shanties on an undeveloped stretch of the river. Jerry’s story was familiar. Working class, he and his wife had met their bills week by week with hourly wages. She fell ill. Then he fell ill. They got behind on their rent and their utilities. The landlord evicted them. As Jerry talked, I listened as carefully as I could. But my thoughts kept coming back to two things he had said. He described a flimsy shelter as real nice.And he told me that everybody helps each other.Mind you, everything Jerry told me reinforced my commitment to change a system that throws hardworking people to the curb. And my own memories of working with the homeless while in seminary who live underground in the streets of NYC — homelessness moved me to compassion for his particular situation. And yet, the way he had described his home and his community had stunned me. Jerry was grateful. In her latest book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Diana Butler Bass teaches us that gratitude is an attitude. But it is also a way of living in the world and a way of organizing ourselves as a community. Grateful people are giving people precisely because we know ourselves to be recipients of unwarranted gifts. I perceived that Jerry’s community of people down on their luck was a grateful community. Everybody helps everybody.
One other example of this is what I read about the other day…it seems to me that thanksgiving/gratitude is embedded in all of creation. Listen to this. It seems a female humpback whale had become entangled in a web of crab traps and lines off the coast of San Francisco. The lines were all wrapped around her and one line was through her mouth. A fisherman had sighted her and alerted an environmental group for help. When the team arrived they had to dive in with knives to untangle her by hand, a very dangerous task. After hours of work, the whale had finally been cut loose.
But then something unusual happened. When the whale realized she had finally been freed, she swam joyfully around in circles. Then, amazingly, she came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around. In other words, she thanked them. Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The diver who cut the rope out of her mouth says her eye was following him the whole time and that he would never be the same.
Thanksgiving is a time to remember those who have attached words to us, words like, May I help?and I’m right here, and Blessed are you among women; and labels like friend, beloved, special, lover, the best, treasure, one in a million, heart of my heart.
Today, then, while we will thank God for many things, let us remember people, especially those who have been with us in kindness and who, in that encounter, have blessed us.
Life is a gift. All life. And gratitude is the attitude, the individual posture, and the communal dynamic that receives life as such. We Americans celebrate Thanksgiving each year. We recognize that we should turn our hearts, our actions, our communities toward gratitude. May it be so. Everywhere. Not just down by the river.
I have been trying to read
the script cut in these hills—
a language carved in the shimmer of stubble
and the solid lines of soil, spoken
in the thud of apples falling
and the rasp of corn stalks finally bare.
The pheasants shout it with a rusty creak
as they gather in the fallen grain,
the blackbirds sing it
over their shoulders in parting,
and gold leaf illuminates the manuscript
where it is written in the trees.
Transcribed onto my human tongue
I believe it might sound like a lullaby,
or the simplest grace at table.
Across the gathering stillness
simply this: “For all that we have received,
dear God, make us truly grateful.”
~ Lynn Ungar ~
We come to you, O God,
in thanksgiving for the gift of our beautiful land,
a land whose harvest feeds us and can feed the world.
We come to you in thanksgiving for the gift of faith,
the faith known to us here in this place.
We come to you in thanksgiving most of all
for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Be with us now that we may truly worship you. Amen.
As we offer our gifts and lives in this moment,
may we become imitators of you, Gracious God,
who holds nothing back from us,
but is generous and gracious with all that is yours.
May thankfulness rise up within you,
not just during this short season,
but day after day,
from the early morning watch until you retire for the night.
In a world where so many are hungry,
May we eat this food with humble hearts;
In a world where so many are lonely,
May we share this friendship with joyful hearts.